'Will the Clanchy controversy blow over or bring real change?'
Carlene Fraser-Harris, Crouch End writer
- Credit: PA
Nothing quite like being labelled a "purity zealot" and a "fake literary" when standing in opposition to white wordsmiths – so, 93% of all authors – who use adjectives like "chocolate-coloured skin" and "African bone structure" to describe me.
But here we are again with another episode of your favourite hyper-visible, trendy gameshow: The Price is White.
Yeah, it’s still 2021. The year of new phrases and hard feelings around race, stereotype, representation, and political correctness. Even in the publishing sector. And, after the last few weeks, most especially in the publishing sector. Because the internet has staked a hefty claim to our residual pandemic life, news travels even faster than the speed of light. And so has everyone’s actions and opinions around Kate Clanchy’s book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me – even mine.
Here’s the situation in a nutshell, in the unlikely event that you missed it. The Orwell Prize winning author, whose recent book was found to be riddled with flippant descriptors of people of colour – her own students – initially, in a since-deleted tweet, said she had been wrongfully accused of racism by recent online book reviewers.
Later, she claimed the quotes were “made up” before correcting her statement to clarify that the narratives had been taken out of context. A typical, expected back-peddle after being caught-out.
Many authors and writers of colour have been publicly grappling with the fact that the book has made it through the many hands of its editors, publishers, readers, and the judges of the distinguished Orwell prize, while other authors and literary moguls have, unsuccessfully, tried to smother the flames of a growing anguish in UK publishing: the still warped presence and presentation of colour that continues to be accepted.
And where else can we all grapple in our discord? Yes, social media. Naturally, Twitter was the battlefield, where phrases like “primitive behaviourism” and “contemporary sensibilities” came charging in to defend the critically acclaimed book. And the casualties of war – Twitter celeb authors such as Dr Pragya Agarwal, Jeffrey Boakye, Monisha Rajesh and Phillip Pullman – littered my feed with the online backlash from their varying stances. Their abuse were perfect examples, yet again, of the comfortable [mis]representation from a white-saviour colonial perspective, benefitting from people classed as "other" without seeking their consent or viewing them as equal. Or compensating them. And who are we – the minority purity zealots – who dare to question the order of their comfort?
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The war on racism and discrimination has been heightened over the past two years, leaving the varying masses both energised and weary from the inevitable change that recent strides have brought. Still, the white outrage over Clanchy’s book is a stark indication that those who don’t want this change will continue to flagrantly fight against it.
My biggest fear? This will blow over much like every other episode of discrimination – a notch to the majority, a sure nail to the minority, driving holes of despair into the planks of our progress. As a child, my mother, and her mother before her, were taught to be ever so proper in words and deed. To constantly think about the repercussions of their actions on their family, community, and superiors. To live in mute humility and bend the knee. They did. They still do. And so do we, because of them.
But Clanchy was not taught this; never needed it. Her sensibilities have been the norm, no matter how misshapen. No, “contemporary sensibilities” will never apply to her. She later apologised for her obstinate overreactions to reader reviews and vowed to rewrite her book. A “humbling” experienced she finally surmised.
"I know I got many things wrong, and welcome the chance to write better, more lovingly.”
Somehow, I feel the humility is still ours.
Carlene Fraser-Harris is a Crouch End based writer.